WATCH: Festival goers flock to dance floor in Saudi's gateway to Mecca

People pose for pictures during the Balad Beast music festival in Jeddah's oldest neighbourhood, known as Al-Balad. Picture: AFP

People pose for pictures during the Balad Beast music festival in Jeddah's oldest neighbourhood, known as Al-Balad. Picture: AFP

Published Jan 25, 2024


On a stage inside the historical centre of Jeddah, the main gateway for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca, rapper Ty Dolla $ign asked his screaming Saudi fans a few questions.

"Where the hot girls at?" the dreadlocked 41-year-old American (real name: Tyrone William Griffin Jr) bellowed into the microphone during his set at the Balad Beast music festival.

"How many of you trying to get lit after the show tonight? How many of you trying to get faded?"

It was an eyebrow-raising scene in conservative Saudi Arabia, which first allowed large-scale mixed-gender festivals only about five years ago, and maintains a strict no-alcohol policy.

Yet Ty Dolla $ign's performance in Jeddah's oldest neighbourhood, known as Al-Balad, alongside artists like Wu-Tang Clan and Major Lazer underscored efforts to revamp the UNESCO World Heritage site, expanding its allure for young Saudis and foreigners.

Under Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious plan to develop a post-oil economy in the world's biggest crude exporter, authorities are targeting 3,000 new hotel rooms in Al-Balad as they try to attract millions more tourists.

Beyond events such as Balad Beast, the 2.5-square-kilometre area is being transformed by an influx of cafes, museums, performance spaces and workshops for artists and craftspeople.

Jeddah residents acknowledge some anxiety about the changes in a neighbourhood strongly associated with the annual Hajj pilgrimage and traditional Ramadaan markets.

But that was hard to glean from the droves of ravers who crowded the four stages at Balad Beast, some with glittery face paint and glow sticks. Most of the women had their hair and faces uncovered.

"Every time I come to Saudi, it's a vibe," Ty Dolla $ign said at one point, inserting an expletive for emphasis.

Historic city, modern vibes

Al-Balad came to prominence in the seventh century as a hub for pilgrims and traders.

Saudi Arabia's founding ruler King Abdulaziz conquered Jeddah in the 1920s, and in 1947 fast growth prompted authorities to tear down the walls surrounding Al-Balad, the city's heart.

People attend a concert during the Balad Beast music festival in Jeddah's oldest neighbourhood, known as Al-Balad. Picture: AFP

Some of the gates still stand, however, as do Al-Balad's distinctive coral stone buildings, many with balconies built from latticed teak wood.

UNESCO granted Al-Balad World Heritage site status in 2014, and in 2018 "revitalisation" efforts overseen by the culture ministry began in earnest.

Today, green barricades erected by the ministry protect restoration work on centuries-old villas, mosques and markets, known as souks.

The ever-expanding calendar of festivals and art exhibitions has enlivened the neighbourhood, attracting people who might otherwise have little interest in it, said Ali Assi Loush, a Lebanese DJ who has lived in Jeddah for 20 years.

"If Balad didn't have Balad Beast, or whatever events it has now, none of the new generation would come to Balad. They'd go to the beach," he said.

"They're not interested in those old shops."

For some elderly residents, though, the new additions can be jarring, he said, likening this wariness to that of a grandmother who refuses to part with a beloved, if battered, chair.

"She would never let you remove it, throw it away, even though it's broken into pieces... No, it's her chair. It's the same thing," Loush said.

Abir Abusulayman, a Saudi tour guide, said most people were enthusiastic about Al-Balad's future, and that there was a clear solution for those who were not.

"They can stay at home," she said. "Easy and simple."


The debate about what's happening in Al-Balad is partly fuelled by broader changes in Jeddah, where an ongoing $20-billion redevelopment project stands to displace half a million people.

Authorities pitch the project as an upgrade that can replace "slums" with amenities like a stadium, an oceanarium and an opera house.

But some affected residents have complained they don't know how to seek compensation, and seethe about official portrayals of their neighbourhoods as dens of drugs and crime.

Abusulayman, the tour guide, said she did not mourn the neighbourhoods that have been razed - most of them far from Al-Balad - predicting they would be replaced by something better.

"I'm very happy that they are gone. These were unplanned districts... no schools, no gardens, no clinics, and some people just built their houses without having the land," she said.

Instead she preferred to focus on new features of life in Al-Balad, as did those who partied late into the night during Balad Beast.

"Personally I like to dress in a vintage style and this is the same thing, it's the same vibe," said Abdulrahman Alhabshi, 20, as images of the performers were projected on nearby walls.

Adnan Manjal, a Jeddah-born DJ known as AZM, was similarly effusive about Al-Balad's evolution.

"To see it transform not only into a UNESCO heritage site but also a dance floor," he said, "is just extraordinary."